May 30, 2024
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The Blessing She-Lo Asani Isha: Some Historical Insights

There has been much scholarly research on this blessing and on the she-asani kirtzono blessing. I would like to share some of the findings.

  1. The blessing she-lo asani isha is found in the Tosefta and in the Talmud. But the blessing she-asani kirtzono is first recorded only in the 14th century (in the Tur and the Abudarham). What did women recite before this?

The language in the Tur is “nahagu nashim le-varech she-asani kirtzono,” implying perhaps that this blessing was an innovation by women themselves, not something suggested by rabbinic leaders. Perhaps this innovation did not occur until the 14th century. But it is also possible that some version appropriate to females arose well before the 14th century, just that no remnants of it have survived.

  1. Other formulations of the blessing for women have been found in the 14th and 15th centuries:

A) A siddur from 14th– or 15th-century Provence (southern France) has the formulation “who has made me a woman.” It is written in Shuadit (the Jewish-French language of the area), utilizing Hebrew characters. (The actual text, in English transliteration, is: ke fis mi fena.)

B) Two siddurim written by R. Abraham Farisol of Italy, in the late 15th century, have she-asitani isha ve-lo ish, who has made me a woman, not a man. (The males in Italy at this time were reciting: who has made me a man, not a woman. The version by R. Farisol is just the mirror image, for females.)

It is important to point out that all three of the above siddurim were manuscripts that were privately commissioned for specific women. These were not manuscripts that had both the male and female versions of the blessing. These manuscripts may not necessarily reflect what other women in their regions were reciting, praying by heart or using a typical siddur written for males.

C) The Leket Yosher reports that R. Israel Isserlin (15th Austria, author of Terumat Ha-Deshen) was of the view that women should recite “she-lo asani behemah.” (Some males were reciting such a text as part of their liturgy. This made it a candidate for the third blessing for women.)

  1. Diogenes Laertius, third cent. C.E., wrote that either Socrates (fifth century BCE) or another early Greek philosopher is reported to have said that there were three blessings for which he was grateful to fortune: “First, that I was born a human being and not one of the brutes; next, that I was born a man and not a woman; thirdly, a Greek and not a Barbarian.”

Did this line of thought of the ancient Greeks lead to our three daily blessings? Many scholars have been willing to take this position, but it is obviously only a conjecture. Note that our three blessings were originally: who has not made me a goy, who has not made me a woman, and who has not made me a bor (an uncultured, mannerless person). See Menachot 43b, Tosefta Berachot, sixth chapter, and the Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot, ninth chapter.

Our three blessings are brought down in Menachot 43b in the name of R. Meir (second century C.E.). In the other two sources, they are brought down in the name of his contemporary, R. Judah. Most likely, the author of the statement was R. Judah, and the attribution to R. Meir at Menachot 43b is the result of a scribal error. This is the conclusion of Joseph Tabory, the scholar who has written the leading article on this subject. But does the fact that the blessings are brought down in the name of R. Judah mean that they originated with him? Perhaps he is merely reporting an earlier tradition. As always, we do not know. (One reason it is interesting to determine whether the statement was made by R. Judah or by R. Meir is that the wife of R. Meir was the very knowledgeable Bruriah.)

  1. An Iranian prayer in a second- or third-century source expressed gratitude to their divinity, Hormiz: “O Creator, I thank Thee for that Thou hast made me an Iranian, and of the true religion… Thanks to Thee, O Creator, for this, that Thou hast made me of the race of men;…for this, that Thou hast created me free and not a slave; for this, that Thou hast created me a man and not a woman.” It has been suggested that this prayer was influenced by our Jewish prayer. Of course, this too is only conjecture.
  2. Although the reasons for the three blessings are not stated in the passage in Menachot, they are stated in the passage in the Tosefta and the Jerusalem Talmud. The explanation given for she-lo asani isha is that women are not obligated in the commandments. Men are here being thankful that they are obligated. Admittedly, it does not sound appropriate to our contemporary ears for women to be mentioned alongside these other two groups. But in Tannaitic and Amoraic literature, statements were often oversimplified and stated in groups like this so that they could be easily memorized and passed down.
  3. There is a general principle that blessings not found in the Talmud are not to be recited with shem and malchut. Most Sephardic poskim and siddurim have adopted this limitation in the case of she-asani kirtzono and instructed women to recite only the words “baruch she-asani kirtzono.” In contrast, in the Ashkenazic world, the prevalent practice is to recite the blessing she-asani kirtzono with shem and malchut. (But a few Ashkenazic sources do argue for the limitation. See, e.g., Seligman Baer, Avodat Yisrael, p. 41, and R. Baruch Epstein in his Baruch She-amar, p. 30.)

Anyone further interested in the history of these three blessings should see the detailed article by Joseph Tabory, “The Benedictions of Self-Identity and The Changing Status of Women and of Orthodoxy,” Kenishta, vol. 1 (2001), pp. 107-138. This article is available online at the website of JOFA (jofa.org).

Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish history scholar. His recently published book is “Esther Unmasked:Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy.” He can be reached at [email protected].

 

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